Sink or swim, Jay Cutler has no regrets about diving in with the Dolphins

PHILADELPHIA -- Sometimes Julius Thomas feels like he is talking into a wall. Perhaps, the more times he tells someone that Jay Cutler is going to have a big season and rescue the Miami Dolphins' offense following the loss of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill from another injury, the more likely someone on the outside will start to believe him.

Thomas, trying to rebound from two years in the abyss in Jacksonville, himself, can sense the skeptics all around, especially with the turnover-prone Cutler returning from a brief retirement after nearly joining the FOX broadcast booth. But his tone could not be more clear. The veteran tight end, who has played with the likes of Peyton Manning in the past, is among those all-in on Cutler for 2017.

Not that anyone in Miami has a choice at this point. Two weeks into Cutler's return to football, certain truisms resound -- like the quarterback's lightning release and powerful arm -- but it's also clear that this is someone who is working his way back to a competitive football environment after having not much thrown a ball around since the end of the Chicago Bears' dismal 2016 campaign.

Ultimately, it could very well be that Cutler, limited to just five games last season due to injury, responds with a solid outing. Dolphins fans are certainly hoping for something similar to his 2015 season with the Bears when Adam Gase was coaching that offense and Cutler threw 21 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions and had a 92.3 rating. A best case scenario would be outperforming what Tannehill has accomplished to this point, yet the Dolphins still revert some from last year's 10-win team due to questions on defense and the offensive line. Regardless, the prospect of Cutler, 34, parachuting into a new team just weeks before he was to make his media debut, and mere weeks before the start of the regular season, makes for one of the NFL's more intriguing sociological experiments of 2017, and elicits no shortage of extreme opinions.

"You can tell he's a high-level quarterback," Thomas told me after the first of several joint practices between the Dolphins and Eagles here this week. "And I've said it and I've said it again, and whether or not people want to believe me, it's fine. But I believe in him. You can just tell from his huddle presence and his understanding of the game, and you know he's going to do a great job for us. You can't play football as many years as he has and lose it in a couple of months. Realistically, guys get injured and they're out for that same amount of time or longer. So anyone who thinks he doesn't have it anymore, I'm going to laugh that one off."

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Gase is betting that he can get the most out of Cutler again. USATSI

Clearly, however, there is still work to be done. Cutler's mental mastery of Gase's system is essentially still there, and, while hardly universally beloved during his long tenure in Chicago, Cutler has the kind of moxie and arm talent that will quickly turn heads and get a locker room chattering. He has a pocket skill set beyond that of many quarterbacks, ever-developing Tannehill included, but has also been his own worst enemy throughout his 12-year career by being far too careless and casual with the football and forcing things when it's unnecessary.

Since 2006, when Cutler was a first-round selection by the Broncos, only Eli Manning (189), Drew Brees (167), Philip Rivers (155) and Carson Palmer (150) have thrown more picks than Cutler (150), though Cutler's interception percentage (3.3 percent) is worse than any regular starter over those 11 years. But, man, that arm. It always comes back to the arm.

Even without a normal offseason and having barely played catch this spring, much less working hard at OTAs throwing hundreds of balls a day, he is a natural. That's especially true on the deep outs to the sideline, several of which he completed against the Eagles' starting defense in this fast-paced practice. It's the kind of stuff that can make tight ends and receivers giddy.

"He's highly capable," slot receiver Jarvis Landry said. "He has the arm. He has the IQ. He has everything that we need to take us to the next level, and he's a guy that -- as we continue to grow and find that chemistry and work together -- we're going to be that much better."

Any chance his fastball isn't quite up to its usual standards, given all that time off?

"He still guns it," Landry said. "He still guns it. He can spin it. That's a live arm right there. This guy's got a live arm."

Cutler said: "I feel fresh. Whenever you go through a whole spring and you throw and throw and throw your body gets a little torn. So right now I feel really balanced and fresh. It's probably a good thing."

Still, there is something to be said for having the chance to get to learn new teammates and mesh with new pass catchers in the lazy days of May and June, rather than the frenzy that can be training camp, with the regular season opener looming. There are things Cutler needs to keep honing.

"Playbook-wise, I think he's good," said Gase, who culled the only 90-plus QB rating season out of Cutler two years ago. "I think it's more feeling the pocket, and getting back and used to that again, and (getting used to) his offensive linemen and his throws. His footwork. Just trying to get his mind right on all of those things. He's done a really good job of trying to make a few adjustments here and there. Sometimes when the ball doesn't come out as clean as he'd like, he'll make little adjustments."

Cutler is adamant that he is passionate about football. He is willing and eager to work, teammates say, and positioned to make them better. Cutler couches his temporary retirement as something less than falling out of love with the sport.

"I don't think I ever really lost it, I just kind of channeled it in different directions," Cutler said. "And I still wanted to be around it and I had that opportunity with FOX, but once this new opportunity (arose) it seemed like a natural fit for me."

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Cutler is enjoying himself so far as he crams for the season.  USATSI

But did he really miss the game? Still need the game? After all, just a few months ago, in his retirement statement, Cutler penned the following: "I don't feel that anyone ever really retires from the NFL. You are either forced to leave, or you lose the desire to do what's required to keep going. I'm in between those situations at this point in my life."

Fast-forward to a little more than two weeks ago and suddenly the Dolphins needed a quarterback and offered Cutler $10M for one season, plus another $3M in incentives.

"I always missed it," Cutler said after Monday's practice. "I think I always said there were days that I missed it, and there were days that I was content in my decision. There was never a week that went by that I didn't think about playing football, and did I make the right decision? Did I not make the right decision?

"I think that's kind of in life. There are always situations that come up and you're not sure which direction to go, and you've just got to pick one and roll with it. I was just lucky enough that something like this happened."

There is potential for this Dolphins offense to evolve. That's if Miami can keep an offensive line together, which is a big if with stud center Mike Pouncey still not back from his hip injury but inching closer to return and with an open competition underway for the starting left guard spot. That's also if young receiver DeVante Parker can finally stay healthy and emerge as a true deep threat.

Cutler is trying to make up for lost time bonding with teammates on this extended road trip to Philly ahead of Thursday night's preseason game.

"You're around the guys 24/7, there's no going home," Cutler said. And Miami's receivers are learning not to give up on a route too soon on either side of the field, with Cutler adept (and sometimes too willing for his own good) to sling the ball anywhere at any time.

"He's done a great job extending plays with his feet," Thomas said, "and making the throws to all sides when we get the right reads and the right coverages. I can't criticize him at all. He's been doing a great job. We're glad to have him."

Come January, we'll see if Dolphins fans are still saying the same -- and  where Tannehill is in yet another recovery from a serious knee injury, and what the future holds for Cutler, either in the broadcast booth or on the football field.

CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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